How It Feels To Play… At All 34

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What It’s Like to Play is a column that describes how videogames are played, to an audience that doesn’t necessarily play a lot of such games. It is inspired by the series of the same name that ran on CultureRamp in late 2012, and its basic premise is explained by L. Rhodes here. The name is used with permission.

As an adult, how does one learn to play elec­tron­ic games? With no older sib­ling or friend down the block to teach, no com­mu­ni­ty of mates to check in with, no mem­o­ry of games from child­hood, how does one begin, how does one progress? The uni­ver­sal advice is, “Just play.” Or “Find a game you love and play till you’re adept.” A wel­com­ing thought — how­ev­er, for me, it’s not been that easy, and I think the rea­sons might be inter­est­ing.

In my late fifties, my per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al life both con­front­ed me with how very much I didn’t know about elec­tron­ic games, aes­thet­i­cal­ly and oth­er­wise. So I set out to explore, and set the arbi­trary goal of get­ting to know fifty games (and a wide range of them). I am still at the begin­ning: in three months that began with casu­al and occa­sion­al play, I’ve intro­duced myself to some twenty‐nine games, so far fin­ish­ing or get­ting seri­ous­ly into about ten.

I can hurry past two ini­tial demands on a new play­er: my new boyfriend, an expert and thought­ful games­man (yes, he’s younger than me), has spared me ini­tial expense by shar­ing his Steam account and hook­ing me up with Blizzard, loan­ing me a track­ball mouse, and doing basic rec­om­men­da­tions and coach­ing. As for the sec­ond task, find­ing peo­ple to play with — no such luck. None of my friends play, and the dread­ed Beginner Shame blocks me for now from play­ing with either my few advanced game‐player acquain­tances or with online strangers. “Games,” for me, for now, more or less means solo‐player PC games.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

So far, every­thing I know I owe to alter­na­tive games — inde­pen­dent, eccen­tric, arty, small, non‐competitive, lower‐stress games: Monument Valley, with the charm of its unflap­pable heroine’s tiny, method­i­cal steps as she traipses through gravity‐defying Escher struc­tures; the restrained, meta‐gaming wit of Cameron Kunzelman’s Catachresis and Epanelepsis; the sim­ple but snide world of Loved; Two Queers in Love at the End of the World. Of course, for a book­ish chap like me, inter­ac­tive fic­tion has been the most involv­ing form, so thanks go to Kentucky Route Zero, Gone Home, and The Walking Dead. And — make no mis­take — this is an awe‐inspiring way to enter gam­ing. But my project requires me to go fur­ther — across a great divide, main­stream games are star­ing at me, expec­tant­ly.

So now let’s talk about my one and only, tiny, area of exper­tise, my spe­cial POV: learn­ing to play elec­tron­ic games with­out the ben­e­fit of any prior expe­ri­ence. So far, two major obser­va­tions: first, as nat­ur­al as game‐playing comes to feel for the vet­er­an play­er, none of this is sim­ply “nat­ur­al” — or, at least, human nature, what­ev­er that may be, has to adjust to these amuse­ments: there is more habit­u­a­tion and shap­ing of desire here, more re‐arranging of affect and excite­ment and, indeed, of val­ues, by the very act of play­ing, than any­one accus­tomed to video games may real­ize. And, sec­ond­ly, play­ing a game is a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence if you’re inex­pe­ri­enced. And thus, when you’re just start­ing out, there are real, and reveal­ing, hur­dles to “just play­ing,” to shar­ing what a more know­ing play­er feels.

The first hur­dle, and it’s huge, is unfa­mil­iar­i­ty with game­play itself — and with the very process of learn­ing a game.

Start with the con­trols. For me, not being good with con­trols almost derails the whole exper­i­ment. It means lots of not suc­ceed­ing; more, it means hes­i­tat­ing at the thresh­old of the deep­er, more involv­ing expe­ri­ence of the game. This is true even with appar­ent­ly sim­ple games: I would have more fully enjoyed Gone Home — its story, its mood and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and sweet queer love story — if it hadn’t been the first time I ever moved a character’s POV with WASD keys and a mouse. I also had things to learn about the puz­zle logic of tra­di­tion­al adven­ture games. Struggling with these, I was too pre­oc­cu­pied by the game­play to get involved in the game.

More com­pli­cat­ed games, like MOBAs, expo­nen­tial­ly increase the obsta­cle, adding time‐urgency in bat­tle and the demands of mul­ti­ple focus­es of atten­tion in a screen flood­ing with visu­al infor­ma­tion; for the first while, naïve play­ers like me will play with­out much con­trol or even much sense of what’s going on. It leaves me pre­oc­cu­pied by my own incom­pe­tence.

Plus I find that I — more a deduc­tive than an induc­tive thinker — do not eas­i­ly learn from the trial‐and‐error method of just jump­ing into a game to see how I do. Once lost, I might stay lost. “Just try it, you’ll fig­ure it out” must work bet­ter for other peo­ple.

The sec­ond hur­dle is the chal­lenge of, yes, get­ting involved in the game, but only in the right way. The fact is that one who enters the world of game­play is asked to mas­ter a strange dance of simul­ta­ne­ous attach­ment and detach­ment: stay unmoved if you are lost, if you fail repeat­ed­ly, even if you fic­tion­al­ly die in the attempt — but, con­trar­i­ly, if you level up, sur­vive, or win, cel­e­brate! I’m told to be emo­tion­al­ly open to the music, art and ani­ma­tion, to the sus­pense, the whim­si­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties of char­ac­ter cre­ation, the fan­ta­sy, the story — to just get into the game — but in that very state of open­ness and sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty, I’m some­how not to be dis­mayed by the gloomy, even dystopi­an, sit­u­a­tions of so many games, the vio­lence, the insis­tence that I kill strangers, or even the fun­da­men­tal help­less­ness of trial and error (and error, and error), as these, after all, are just the givens of play and not to be felt or thought much about. To expe­ri­enced play­ers, to prob­lema­tize this is pre­pos­ter­ous: “What’s wrong?” they ask. “You can’t enjoy the game if you keep get­ting upset about the wrong things or don’t enjoy the right ones!” Just so. But know­ing the dif­fer­ence is not auto­mat­ic — it has to be learned.

The third, and, to me, the most res­o­nant, chal­lenge is the fact that, for a new play­er, each game stands by itself. Michael Lutz wrote acute­ly in First Person Scholar  (empha­sis added):

I would con­tend that in the con­text of videogames, each per­for­mance is dou­bly haunt­ed: first by our mem­o­ries of other games and expec­ta­tions of new ones, and then by our expe­ri­ences of play­ing the game itself.

If that’s so, then some part of the fun an expe­ri­enced play­er enjoys is not inher­ent to any par­tic­u­lar game: the exhil­a­ra­tion my boyfriend feels as he plays is not inspired only by the game at hand, or even because he knows it as one of a type or sequence of games, but, because he already loves games, always‐already val­i­dat­ing each par­tic­u­lar one with­in a larg­er, famil­iar delight. Lacking that con­text, a new game for me can be a shal­low­er expe­ri­ence, even a strange shot in the dark that I’m not sure I’m get­ting the point of. A good rela­tion­ship with any game can depend on know­ing things beyond it.

So, hope­ful­ly, with more play‐time logged in, more get­ting the whole process under my skin, and (fin­gers crossed) some more suc­cess, my ease, my con­fi­dence, and, thus, my engage­ment and delight will increase. But John Vinson, in an Examiner​.com arti­cle, “How to Play First‐Person Shooters”, gives the hard word:

The world of video games requires a lot of expe­ri­ence … FPS games in par­tic­u­lar have a nuance which requires tons of prac­tice in order to even be decent at them. …  No one said it was going to be easy. … When you first pick up a game, whether it’s FPS or not, you’re going to be pret­ty awful at it. Don’t get dis­cour­aged. No one truly becomes ade­quate at play­ing a game until they can put the time in nec­es­sary. It’s eas­i­er said than done when you keep dying on the same stage over and over again. … The key is to sim­ply look at it as an obsta­cle which needs to be con­quered.

For a new play­er, the obsta­cle that needs to be con­quered is being a new play­er. As such, and for all these rea­sons, I — fierce­ly deter­mined to get some­where in this explo­ration — am not yet get­ting to the fun, at least not the fun an expe­ri­enced play­er knows. Curiosity (and some­times teeth‐grinding stub­born­ness) has to moti­vate me instead. And that works.

Kentucky Route Zero Act III

Kentucky Route Zero Act III

There are cer­tain­ly pos­i­tive moments, gifts along the way — the dive bar’s ceil­ing mys­te­ri­ous­ly open­ing up to the sky dur­ing the torch song in Kentucky Route Zero, a moment of vic­to­ry when, after eight rapid deaths in The Walking Dead I fig­ure out how to sur­vive a par­tic­u­lar­ly tena­cious zom­bie by sneak­ing away behind a mov­ing car, a short sequence of chal­lenges in Portal 2 that proves sur­pris­ing­ly doable. I’m get­ting a lit­tle more patient, a lit­tle more accli­mat­ed — maybe even a lit­tle more amused. I’ve grown accus­tomed to giv­ing games some time, and rec­og­niz­ing that the start­up peri­od of learn­ing a game is never going to be the part I per­son­al­ly enjoy. And late­ly I’ve seen that the days when I am most bit­ter­ly frus­trat­ed, “hate‐playing” and com­plain­ing to any poor soul who will lis­ten — those days are usu­al­ly fol­lowed by next‐day break­throughs.

A few morn­ings ago I find myself play­ing through the tuto­r­i­al of Diablo III with my boyfriend, who offers tact­ful coach­ing and expla­na­tion (N.B.: the most impor­tant words you can say to a new play­er? “You don’t have to under­stand that part yet.” Instant relief.) As a team game, it’s a big change for me. And, to my sur­prise, I like it; for three hours of mediocre play­ing (my longest play ses­sion at a sin­gle game so far), I like it well enough — sim­ple game­play, a hope of sur­vival, a break from puzzle‐solving, pleas­ing visu­als, a chang­ing land­scape, anoth­er play­er in the room … My son texts me, “I’d com­ment that it’s odd that such a smart guy likes such a dumb game, but I like Diablo a lot, too.”

I write as an out­sider, but one inter­est­ed in and sym­pa­thet­ic to games. What, then, might this out­sider account offer to insid­ers?

First, an appeal: I real­ly think this could be eas­i­er. Can’t some­one cre­ate a grad­u­at­ed list of games for adult‐onset play­ers, a series of games to take on, in sequence, that would build famil­iar­i­ty and com­po­nent skills and even atti­tudes, in a con­scious way? Most play­ers I know have only the blur­ri­est mem­o­ries of how one learns this stuff, lit­tle sense of the parts that make up the whole: sort­ing it out might be an inter­est­ing project.

Second, a reflec­tion. I’d haz­ard a sur­mise for invet­er­ate play­ers: if play­ing these games feels nat­ur­al, it’s an acquired nature — because habit­u­a­tion to play actu­al­ly changes you. In par­tic­u­lar, you become desen­si­tized to some ele­ments of the game fic­tions and high­ly sen­si­tive to oth­ers, includ­ing the rewards and ener­getic stim­u­la­tions of play. You become crafty at the kinds of prob­lems games put for­ward; it comes to affect your rhythms, your imag­i­na­tion, your way of pro­cess­ing things. (Don’t get me start­ed on what it’s like to drive in traf­fic with a com­mit­ted MOBA play­er!)

Most impor­tant­ly, in a larg­er sense, I believe that games alter your sense of fun, includ­ing, cen­tral­ly, the very value you place on fun, the amount of time, money, effort you are will­ing to invest in its pur­suit. In short, alien vis­i­tor that I am, I have to accept that for you this fun is authen­tic and valu­able. In fact — here’s my pro­fes­so­r­i­al train­ing — I believe that the value you place on fun actu­al­ly con­sti­tutes an on‐the‐ground riposte to a lot of critical/cultural pes­simism (I refer espe­cial­ly to mid‐twentieth‐century Marxists, like Lyotard and Baudrillard, both very influ­en­tial on me, who saw all pop‐culture habit­u­a­tions through nar­rowed, sus­pi­cious eyes). A thought­ful, crit­i­cal reeval­u­a­tion of play, of fun, could upset a lot of ortho­dox­ies. That’s part of the promise of games.